What is plain language?
Plain language is writing that is easy to read and understand. Anyone can communicate ideas clearly and effectively with plain language. Plain language is adaptable to the needs of your audience. Plain language makes content more accessible to everyone.
An example of plain language
The following example demonstrates how plain language can make writing easier to understand:
“A young woman, whose name is believed to mean ‘bitter,’ was in possession of one diminutive juvenile ovine, the fibrous pelt of which approximated the achromatic hue of frozen precipitation. Regardless of said young woman’s trajectory, said juvenile ovine autonomously pursued an indistinguishable trajectory.”
Plain language version
“Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”
Who benefits from plain language?
Plain language makes reading easier for many people. People supported by plain language include:
- People with disabilities that affect cognition or memory. This includes cognitive, intellectual, mental health, and learning disabilities.
- People with print disabilities.
- Language learners and people of all literacy levels.
- People who are reading while distracted, hurried, or stressed.
- People not familiar with the document topic.
When to use and not to use plain language
It is important to consider your audience when writing. Different audiences will have different background knowledge and needs. A public-facing website will have a different audience than documents for a course.
Plain language can be useful in an academic setting. A common myth is that plain language is incompatible with teaching complex subjects. Complex topics can be clearly communicated with plain language without losing substance. Before and after plain language examples demonstrate how scientific documents can be translated into plain language. There are many other valuable ways to use plain language, such as communicating course expectations in a syllabus.
You can also create a plain language version as an alternative to a complex document. The difference in the documents should be language and not content. A plain language version has the meaning of the original document written in a more accessible way.
How to write in plain language
There are several steps that you can take to make your writing more accessible.
- Be concise. Use short paragraphs, sentences, and bulleted lists.
- Be organized. Organize content logically. Use headings and structure your content.
- Be direct. Use active voice. Lead with the main point.
- Be clear. Use literal language. Provide examples.
- Use common words. Use common words with fewer syllables. Define words that may be unknown.
- Define acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon. Define these terms in context.
- Use a readability checker such as the Hemingway Editor to review your writing.
Learn about plain language
- Plain Language is for everyone, even experts
- Plain Language has a clear place in academic writing
- Plain Language Writing — An Essential Part Of Accessibility
- W3C: Clear Words
- Related WCAG 2.1 Success Criteria: 3.1.5 Reading Level